Featured Linguist: Chris Green

I always thought my journey to linguistics was a bit odd and haphazard, but as I’ve met more linguists over the years, I’ve come to realize that many of us took some time to find our way to the field. Like many others, after graduating high school, I had never heard of linguistics. I had always been interested in languages and learning them – first Spanish and French in high school, and even Swahili, which I tried to learn on my own – so that I could travel to new and exciting places. Growing up in central New York, and particularly, enduring its long grey winters, had me longing to see what else was out there in the world…preferably some place warm and sunny! Back in those days, when we would go to the mall, I would spend my time in Borders or Barnes & Noble, eagerly flipping through the pages of whatever language books I could get my hands on.
Despite this interest in language, I went to college (yes, someplace warm!) to study biochemistry and classical saxophone performance. For fun, I took Ancient Greek for three semesters, and was simultaneously puzzled and fascinated by new-to-me ideas like grammatical case, aspect, and mood that I had never heard of before (Aorist?! What’s an aorist?). Upon finishing my two degrees, I began working in a virology lab as an electron microscopy specialist, but I got burned out quickly working in a reverse-pressure Level 3 facility, communicating with my colleagues through double-paned glass windows all day. A former French professor told me about the linguistics class that she was taking, and as she described her assignments, the perfect combination of scientific inquiry and language unfolded right in front of me. She offered to introduce me to her professor, the late J. Kathryn Josserand, an expert in Mayan discourse analysis at Florida State University. Kathryn and her husband, Nick Hopkins, a phonetician, happened to be working with a PhD student from Côte d’Ivoire, Sidiky Diarrasouba, to analyze the discourse structure of his mother tongue, Nafaanra, and they invited to me to join them. As is often said, the rest is history.
I became fascinated by linguistics, and by all things related to African languages. I spent the next year continuing to work in my lab, taking graduate classes in linguistics as a non-matriculated student, and working with Kathryn, Nick, and Sidiky on the weekends. When it came time to apply to graduate school, Indiana University took a chance on me and also offered me the chance to begin studying Bambara. My karamɔkɔ, Boubacar Diakite, was also a graduate student in linguistics at the time, and along with classmate Abbie Hantgan (CNRS), the three of us spent a lot of time thinking of ways to apply to Bambara what we were learning in our other coursework. Bambara became the focus of my dissertation work, and my love of phonology, and of prosody and tone in particular, blossomed while taking classes with Sam Obeng and Stuart Davis, and also while working in Dan Dinnsen’s lab at the Learnability Project.
Just before heading to Bamako to do my dissertation fieldwork, I was offered a job at the former Center for Advanced Study of Language (CASL) at the University of Maryland. I went to Mali, collected my data, and returned home to finish and defend my thesis. I then spent the next five years as Co-PI of several federally funded projects whose goal was ultimately to help adults (e.g., diplomats, soldiers, translators) learn African languages quickly and effectively. Being on “soft money” projects was an incredible challenge for a new PhD specializing in phonology, as funders had no interest in theory and little in typology, and even our language foci often changed annually in response to world events. What this period of time provided me, however, was exposure to new languages, and particularly, to the Cushitic languages Somali, Maay Maay, and Marka. I also was awarded a Collaborative Research Grant from the NSF with Co-PIs Michael Marlo (Missouri) and Michael Diercks (Pomona) to study Wanga (a Bantu language of Kenya), expanding upon work I began in a field methods course in graduate school. Added to my work on Bambara and Susu (another Mande language), I found myself awash in data from three different language families and needing to somehow build a research program. In the interest of making the most of my situation, I began to think big picture about prominence. How do languages with vastly different prosodic systems encode prominence? What structures and factors affect its realization? What counts as prominence anyway? In this realm, I’ve published on issues related to tone, wordhood, headedness, syllable structure, and vowel harmony. As I heard Laura Downing (Gothenburg) once say in a workshop discussion (and I’m paraphrasing slightly), “As a phonologist, I’m attracted to interesting data.” For me, nothing could be closer to the truth, and I remind myself of this when I reflect on the various languages and phenomena that have occupied my thoughts over the past 12 years or so.
Since 2016, I’ve been a member of the Linguistic Studies Program faculty at Syracuse University, back in my hometown, and (despite enduring the long winters once again) enjoying the opportunity to finish up old projects while beginning new ones, including documentation and description of the Jarawan languages of Nigeria, which began in 2018 with MA student Milkatu Garba. Milka is a mother tongue speaker of the Jarawan language Mbat (iso:bau), and has become a collaborator and, in many ways, my project manager, since finishing her MA in 2020. In hopes that the pandemic would be winding down, I applied for and was awarded an NEH fellowship to continue this project. I had truly hoped that this might include some travel and data collection, whether for me, Milka, or both of us. Of course, these plans were met head on with the realities of the ongoing state of global public health. But, in the spirit of the theme for this year’s Fund Drive, “Silver Linings,” Milka and I found a way to harness the power of social media to find several Jarawan-speaking consultants in Nigeria who were eagerly willing to work with us. Through a combination of sharing questionnaires on GoogleDrive, conducting meetings over Google Voice, receiving recordings through WhatsApp, and making payments via international cash apps, we’ve managed to find a way to work effectively with two speakers each of two new-to-us Jarawan languages, Duguri and Galamkya. We’ve spent this Summer making strides learning about their unique properties and, thereby, beginning to understand more about the internal dynamics of this language cluster whose status as Bantu vs. non-Bantu has been widely debated. So, like many others, we have tried to find a way to make the best of the continued pandemic state of affairs, and to find a way to look on the bright side and to seize upon what is within the realm of possibility to do safely, to somehow push ahead in our research.
Despite all the chaos in the world, and the extra hoops that we encounter daily in our remote fieldwork, though, I can’t help but nod my head and smile. Whether its participating in informal weekly Zoom working groups, learning how to handle remote workshops and conferences, participating in midnight colloquium talks on the other side of the world, or figuring out how to interface with consultants remotely through social media and smart phones, it is abundantly clear that we linguists comprise a resilient and creative community, and that bodes well for the future of our discipline.

Christopher R. Green
Syracuse University, Department of Languages, Literatures, & Linguistics
HBC 307, Syracuse NY 13244
[email protected]


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